Give NBC credit — they're doing their best to increase the national perception of Major League Soccer.
The network will broadcast three live MLS games today (one on NBC, two on NBCSN) and provide the U.S. with its first glimpse of a RedZone-esque whip-around show called "The Breakaway."
It's all a part of the league's rivalry weekend, which includes FC Dallas against Houston Dynamo at noon Sunday on ESPN2.
And it's a good start for NBC, which is doing its best to increase its value in the sports broadcasting arena beyond the Olympics, NHL and Sunday Night Football, hoping NBCSN begins to rival ESPN and Fox Sports.
NFL's RedZone channel was an extreme hit for the league, allowing fantasy football fanatics — not fans, mind you; I don't think you can be a fan and follow your fantasy team more than your hometown team — to see every touchdown. NBC is hoping to find the same success for the MLS version.
The problem: MLS isn't the most popular soccer league in America. A huge portion of American soccer fans would rather watch the world's top leagues — England's Premier League, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A — or even the Mexican league over MLS.
Soon NBC will be the channel for soccer in America. In October, the network acquired the rights to the world's most prestigious league, the EPL, and already made plans to air more games on over-the-air NBC than Fox.
So will soccer fans tune in for MLS when EPL is available just as much?
To me it comes down to weekends like this. Rivalry games, like the FC Dallas-Houston game that I'll be attending, can help drive interest in MLS.
Sure you can watch the best players in the world in Europe, or you can go watch your local team in person. Would fans rather feel a connection to a team as many Americans have learned to love? Or is the allure of top competition too much to resist a legion of Euro snobs among American soccer fans.
Personally, I watch both. I'll typically watch soccer no matter who's playing, assuming I'm awake for it. Sorry ESPN, I'm not waking up at 6:30 a.m. just to watch Stoke and West Ham; but I'll go out of my way to watch my two favorite teams (Arsenal in Europe and Dynamo stateside).
Growing up I didn't root for any team. Watching European games I'd find players I liked and root for them; only in the late 2000s did I gradually latch on to Arsenal. In U.S. soccer, being from Houston I couldn't root for a Dallas team so I honestly didn't follow the MLS much until the Dynamo arrived from San Jose in 2006.
Now that I have teams in both theaters, however, I find myself more engaged. I'll watch that Tottenham Hotspur-Everton game just because I want to see the Spurs lose. I'll tune in to see how the New York Red Bulls are faring because it has a bearing on the Dynamo's standing.
And that's the key, I believe, to growth with the MLS. The explosion to 19 teams in the last few years has given more fans in more regions a reason to watch. With rivalry weekends like this one, that only ups the ante.
NBC and MLS are doing a good job of taking advantage of this fact.
Meanwhile, Fox is doing the complete opposite. With ownership of the Champions League, the network opts to show the best games of the day not on Fox Sports Net, which most every household with cable has access to, but on Fox Soccer Channel, which has far fewer subscribers and is typically only owned by soccer fans. So us basic-cable subscribers get to watch Schalke vs. Galatasaray instead of Barcelona vs. AC Milan.
So thank you NBC for giving the people what they want: strong coverage of both MLS and EPL. Now we just have to figure out which one we want.